From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith Teresa MacBain admits that when she was ordained as a minister, she had big questions. She thought they'd make her faith stronger, but instead they haunted her. Then one day, she couldn't take it anymore. In a move that's left her unemployed and nearly friendless, MacBain has come out as an atheist — and she says it's a big relief.

From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

In this part of the program, a story of faith and the loss of it. Imagine being a minister and realizing you no longer believe in God. Your world view, your friends, your community, your career - all suddenly in jeopardy.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty introduces us to one minister in the Bible Belt who traveled the lonely road from faith to non-belief.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she's terrified to reveal.

TERESA MACBAIN: I'm currently an active pastor, and I'm also an atheist.

HAGERTY: She glances nervously around the room. It's a Sunday. Normally, she'd be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Florida. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists convention.

TERESA MACBAIN: I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday when Sunday's right around the corner, I start having stomachaches, headaches - just knowing that I've got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in, and portray myself in a way that's totally false.

HAGERTY: It's taking a toll - two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick, week after week. Her iPhone has become her confessor.

TERESA MACBAIN: On my way to church again. Another Sunday. Man, this is getting worse.

HAGERTY: MacBain made this recording in her car on the way to Lake Jackson United Methodist Church. It was weeks before the atheist conference.

TERESA MACBAIN: How did I get myself in this mess? Sometimes I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions, and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow, not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I'd just keep my job. But I can't do that. I know it's a lie. I know it's false.

HAGERTY: Forty-four-year-old Teresa MacBain was raised a conservative Southern Baptist. Her dad was a pastor. She felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions, of course, about conflicts in the Bible or the role of women, but she set her concerns aside. When she became a United Methodist pastor nine years ago, she started asking sharper questions. She thought they'd make her faith stronger.

TERESA MACBAIN: In reality, as I worked through them, I found that religion had so many holes in it that I just progressed through stages where I couldn't believe it.

HAGERTY: The questions haunted her. Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all? And one day...

TERESA MACBAIN: I just kind of realized - I mean, just a eureka moment. Not an epiphany, but a eureka moment. I'm an atheist. I don't believe. And in the moment that I uttered that word, I stumbled and choked on that word, atheist.

HAGERTY: But it felt right. Online, MacBain found the Clergy Project, an anonymous community of clergy who have lost their faith. Now she had allies, but no easy escape. She began applying for jobs. People would ask, why did she want to leave ministry? She worried about this as she drove around. She didn't know what to say.

TERESA MACBAIN: So what the hell am I supposed to do? Man, really, the options are work at something like Starbucks or McDonald's. And even there, they're going to ask those questions. And I could even clean houses and not make a great amount of money, but at least nobody would be asking me questions.

HAGERTY: One Sunday on her way to church, MacBain realized she could no longer bear her double life.

TERESA MACBAIN: I've got to come out - I've got to get out of it. It used to terrify me of what people's reaction would be. But it's been so long now, and I've done this for so long, I don't even care.

HAGERTY: The sermon she gave that day was her last.

TERESA MACBAIN: I'm here at the American Atheist convention, where in just about two and a half hours, I will be standing before a group, sharing my story, and coming out officially as an atheist.

HAGERTY: March 26th, Bethesda, Maryland. MacBain seems almost giddy.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She is still undercover. And so...

TERESA MACBAIN: I'm nervous but at the same time, I'm so excited. I slept like a baby last night, because I knew I wasn't going to have to live a lie anymore. Such freedom.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please, come up.


TERESA MACBAIN: My name is Teresa. I'm a pastor currently serving a Methodist church - at least, up to this point.


TERESA MACBAIN: And I am an atheist.


HAGERTY: The 1,500 people jump to their feet. They hoot and clap for more than a minute. MacBain then apologizes to them for being, as she put it, a hater.


TERESA MACBAIN: You were just those people, and I was the one on the right track. And you were the ones that were going to burn in hell. And I'm happy to say, as I stand before you right now, I'm going to burn with you.


RANDY: Hi, Teresa. My name is Randy.


RANDY: I got to tell you, that was one of the most moving things I've seen in years. I was getting choked up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was a born-again Christian up until three months ago, so join the club.

TERESA MACBAIN: I have never felt so appreciated and cared for, you know. New member, just been born - that's what it feels like.

HAGERTY: Two days later, MacBain returned to Tallahassee, to reality.

RAY MACBAIN: I didn't know how far or how explosive her coming out would be. But then again, nobody did.

HAGERTY: MacBain's husband, Ray.

RAY MACBAIN: The next morning, we got up. I went to work and my son Alex texted me and said it went viral. And that's when the local TV channel took it.


RAY MACBAIN: By the time I got to the TV channel, there was 500 and something comments.

TERESA MACBAIN: The majority of them, to begin with, were pretty hateful. For somebody who's been a good guy their whole life and been a people pleaser, it's really hard to imagine that overnight, you're the bad guy.

HAGERTY: MacBain tried to see the church's district superintendent to explain, but he canceled the meeting. She left town briefly. And there, sitting alone in her hotel room, she turned on the iPhone.

TERESA MACBAIN: So I'm sitting in Seattle; Sunday, April the 1st. I found out that the church has locked me out; that they're holding a secret meeting that I'm not supposed to know about. But I don't want to go home. I don't want to have to be in Publix or Walmart or somewhere, and worry about who's going to see me - and who's going to corner me and just tell me off.

HAGERTY: But she did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. Only two friends called on her. But her family was a refuge, even if they didn't all agree.

RAY MACBAIN: I believe in God. And to be honest, I pray for her every night; I've got friends praying for her.

HAGERTY: Ray MacBain says he adores his wife, and defends her right to disbelieve.

RAY MACBAIN: That's why I spent 23 years in the Army. That's why I'm still a police officer. We have freedom of speech, and freedom of thought. And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?

HAGERTY: I wanted to see the church at the center of her story, so I ask MacBain to take me for a drive. It's Sunday morning.

TERESA MACBAIN: OK, here's the church coming up on the right. And we should have a fairly decent-size crowd. But can't get in the parking lot, but we can at least loop around closer.

HAGERTY: Does this make you a little nervous?

TERESA MACBAIN: Yeah. Yeah, I have butterflies.

HAGERTY: This is the first time MacBain has seen her church since she went public. It's 11:20, nearly time for the sermon. MacBain is glad she's not inside.

TERESA MACBAIN: Not because of the people or anything, but because if I were in there, I know what I would be doing. And that would be standing up and proclaiming something that I no longer believe in. So yeah, I'm relieved that I don't have to do that.

HAGERTY: She wants to leave before anyone sees us.

TERESA MACBAIN: Let's see, which way is the easiest to go?

HAGERTY: Later, at home, I ask her: What do you miss?

TERESA MACBAIN: I miss the music. Music has been a part of my life for a long time. And some of the hymns, I still catch myself singing them. I mean, they're beautiful pieces of music.


TERESA MACBAIN: And I miss the relationships. So yeah, I do miss that. And I miss the ritual and the regularity of it. It's what I know. It's what I knew. And I still struggle with it. Life is just different.

HAGERTY: I don't hear you say that you miss God.

TERESA MACBAIN: Uh - no, no. I can't say that I do.


HAGERTY: From now on, Teresa MacBain says, she's on her own.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.


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